JAFFREY — For Steve Pelkey and others in the pyrotechnic business, the COVID-19 outbreak could not have come at a worse time.
Pelkey, the owner of Atlas PyroVision Entertainment, said his business spends 10 months out of the year planning for the Fourth of July and other summer occasions, like concerts, sporting events and festivals. But while New Hampshire has been taking small steps toward reopening its economy, Pelkey said there’s no telling how long it will be until the large events that keep his business afloat will be allowed to take place again.
“Approximately 70 percent of our business is public displays and event performance,” Pelkey said. “The remaining 30 percent of our business is consumer firework sales out of our stores.”
Atlas PyroVision, based in Jaffrey, has been in business since 1949, and Pelkey’s family purchased it 30 years later. Pelkey himself took over the business in 1986 before purchasing it outright in 1990. He said the company is behind about 70 percent of all professional pyrotechnic displays in New England.
Among the events that make up the bulk of his business, Pelkey said he’s planning for a 90 percent cancellation rate this season. He said a few autumn events may still happen and noted that a few municipalities are looking for ways to host fireworks displays that allow viewers to maintain proper social distance.
Retail stores OK
On May 11, retail facilities were allowed to resume in-person operations with some restrictions, and that includes vendors who sell fireworks for personal use. Those businesses report strong sales since they reopened, just in time for summer, their busiest season.
Even with having to operate at less than 50 percent capacity, Phantom Fireworks of Hinsdale is doing a brisk business, manager Mary Bebey said Monday. “Right now we are very busy,” she said. “Now everybody knows we’re open, and they’re coming in.”
Stateline Fireworks in Winchester opened with a sale and was “slammed,” said co-owner Pamela Wilcox-Dapkus. The store has been able to call back all of the 17 mostly part-time employees laid off when retail establishments were forced to shut down to stem the spread of COVID-19, she said.
Pelkey said the retail element of his business has been off to a slow start at his four locations, including one in Rindge, but added that it’s normal this time of year. He said annual trends show a steep uptick in sales between late May and the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July.
With those sales making up nearly a third of his income, Pelkey said they’re really hoping to see business pick up so that Atlas can survive the summer. But he doesn’t think this will be sufficient to keep them going in the long term.
“It’s certainly not enough to sustain us until the next season,” he said. “Unlike a lot of industries that can deal with a phased-in rollout of reopening, [our busy season] is one time of the year and it’s done. There’s no second Fourth of July.”
Federal relief funding helps
Atlas, which has 26 full-time employees, did receive funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, a piece of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act designed to help businesses keep workers on the payroll, but Pelkey said that the program lasts only eight weeks, and he’s coming up on the end of that time period. He said he’s hoping Congress will pass a new round of relief funding soon.
He said his business would also typically employ about 450 seasonal pyrotechnicians to work events, all of whom are unable to perform their jobs while those events are barred from taking place.
Pelkey also pointed to the $400 million in CARES Act funding that Gov. Chris Sununu has earmarked to help small businesses. He said he’s waiting to hear more about the application process so he can hopefully get some help through that program as well.
“Perhaps by the time July 4th rolls around, we will perhaps be able to get some assistance through that,” Pelkey said. “But at least it’s another safety mechanism of funding for small businesses that are most impacted, and that we’re very appreciative of.”